Habitable Zone Of Red Dwarfs May Be Larger Than Once Thought

Stretching the spectrum: a hypothetical red dwarf planetary system (Research.gov)

Given that 80% of the stars in the Universe are M-type ‘red dwarfs’, research into the habitability of planets in these stars’ orbits has received relatively little attention in the past as they were generally considered unsuitable for hosting habitable planets due to their low mass and temperatures, as well as the propensity for planets in their orbit to be ‘tidally locked’. However, this trend has shown signs of reversal over the past few years, and habitability assessments have generally returned favourable reviews of M-star planets. The issue of tidal locking, where one hemisphere of a planet constantly faces the star, doesn’t seem to be resolved yet, but more research is being carried out and a definitive assessment may be forthcoming soon.

A paper published in Astrobiology this month has bolstered the habitability assessment of red dwarf systems even further. Manoj Joshi, now at the University of East Anglia, and Robert Haberle at the NASA Ames Research Center, have considered the effect that the longer wavelength spectra of M-stars may have on the ice-albedo feedback operating on planets within their habitable zones. Albedo describes the fractional reflectivity of a given surface, from 0 (nothing reflected, a hypothetical ‘black-body’ ) to 1 (all light reflected). On Earth, the albedo of ice is ~0.5 (50% of light reflected), whilst snow has an albedo of ~0.8.

The ice-albedo feedback is a fundamentally important abiotic feedback mechanism that has a powerful control over the planetary climate: it describes the ability of ice and snow to reflect light away from the surface, thereby cooling it further and causing more ice/snow to form, which continues to exacerbate the effect in what is termed a ‘positive’ or destabilising feedback loop. More ice, more light reflected away, cooler temperatures, more ice and so on.

The ice-albedo feedback is thought to have been at least partially responsible for the ‘Snowball’ or ‘Slushball’ Earth events that occurred in the late Proterozoic eon, approximately 600 million years ago, which saw the Earth frozen from pole to pole, with possible refugia at the equator. This interpretation is still rather contentious within the geosciences, but most researchers agree that the Earth experienced a period of extreme glaciation around this time, but its full extent, and how the Earth emerged from this deep-freeze, is still not fully understood.

The amount of incident light, as well as atmospheric greenhouse effects, exhibit a strong control on the ability of the ice-albedo feedback to enter a ‘runaway’ state by preventing temperatures from falling below a critical level of ice cover. Accordingly, this mechanism is often considered a controlling factor on the outer boundary of the habitable zone because of its very powerful ability to destabilise the planetary environment into an irreversible state of complete glaciation.

Joshi and Haberle constructed a simple model to test how the the ice-albedo feedback would operate on planets within the habitable zones of M-stars when considering the longer wavelength, lower energy emissions of these stars. Red dwarfs, as their name suggests, emit much of their radiation in the red and near-infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Observations from the red dwarfs Gliese 436 and GJ 1214 mentioned by the authors show that they emit much of their radiation at wavelengths greater than 0.7 μm, and significantly more in the 3 to 10 μm region than would be expected from a ‘black-body’ hypothesised M-type of a similar temperature. The albedo of ice and snow begins to decrease at wavelengths greater than 1 μm, and therefore the albedo of snow and ice covered surfaces on planets in the orbit of red dwarfs would be proportionally lower than that of the same surface on Earth (or any other planet in orbit around a G- or K-type star), meaning they reflect less radiation away from the surface, and that the ice-albedo feedback mechanism is weakened. For example, the authors show that snow or ice covered surfaces on planets orbiting GJ1214 may have albedos of 0.43 and 0.23 respectively, representing a significant decrease in the amount of incident light reflected from the surface and a dampening of the ice-albedo feedback mechanism.

Because of the diminished effect of the ice-albedo feedback mechanism around red dwarfs, the authors propose that their habitable zone may be 10-30% further from the star than was previously considered. This finding has a significant impact on the search for habitable exoplanets and for astrobiology, and, as is often the case with good science, has been drawn from a relatively simple experiment – in this case, by analysing the reflectivity of frozen or snowy surfaces under the observed radiative regime of red dwarfs. It seems that the tide really is turning in terms of our understanding of the habitability of planets in the orbits of red dwarfs, and that these numerous and ubiquitous stars should receive renewed research and observational attention.


Click here for the Astrobiology article (requires subscription).


Manoj M. Joshi and Robert M. Haberle (2012). Suppression of the water ice and snow albedo feedback on planets orbiting red dwarf stars and the subsequent widening of the habitable zone Astrobiology, 12 (1) DOI: http://arxiv.org/abs/1110.4525


3 comments on “Habitable Zone Of Red Dwarfs May Be Larger Than Once Thought

    • I think tidal locking is still a problem that needs to be better understood in terms of habitability. This research shows that the dampening of the ice albedo feedback affects the outer boundary of the habitable zone, so it would have less of an impact on tidal locking than if it impacted the inner boundary for example. Still, modelling may show that planets can now orbit beyond the point at which they become tidally locked and still be within the habitable zone.

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